Sunday, 6 August 2017

Days 213 – 218

Day 213

1 August 2017: Florence Price – Symphony in E minor (1932)
Although Florence Price was not the first American woman to make a name for herself as a symphonist, with the estimable Amy Beach having blazed a trail as early as 1896 (see Day 54), she was, however, the first of African-American origin to have done so. It's impossible to overstate just how great an achievement that was in 1930s USA. Incredibly, this was her first orchestral work, written while she was recovering from a broken foot, as it happens. It won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition, and was performed the following year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – meaning Price became the first black woman to have been afforded such an honour.

It's an oddly imbalanced work, with the first two movements having a combined duration of around 30 minutes, while the second pair barely reach the nine-minute mark between them. Also, I think it's fair to say that Florence Price was, shall we say, at least familiar with Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony. The first movement's main pentatonic theme, its harmonic language, and orchestration all bear more than a passing resemblance to the Czech composer's work. That said, it is a really nice piece. The slow movement with its brass chorales has a real delicate beauty to it. I could definitely have lived without the swannee whistle in the third movement though.

Day 214

2 August 2017: Enescu – Symphony No. 3 (1918)
Firmly ensconced in the category of composers whose name I'm familiar with but whose music I've never heard, George Enescu was exactly the sort of person I was aiming to discover more about in my Symphony A Day adventure. Enescu was a close friend of Alfredo Casella, who has already featured in these pages – most recently last week – having been fellow-pupils of Gabriel Fauré in Paris. In fact, Casella's second symphony (see Day 206) was dedicated to Enescu, who had previously dedicated his own first symphony to Casella.

Symphony No. 3 is regarded by many of those more familiar with his work as the greatest of the three he wrote. It's certainly a very substantial work, clocking in at around 50 minutes, and employing a large orchestra plus a wordless choir. The first movement starts with a throbbing bass line setting a dark tone for the work, but over the course of the ensuing 20 minutes it passes through so many other phases that I'm afraid I rather lost whatever thread Enescu was following. These are the perils of listening works of this scale just once; clearly this is a piece that requires a few listens to fully assimilate. For the most part, this is a solemn and brooding work, but all of this leads to the ecstatic culmination of the final movement, which features the choir in all its glory. The result is an almost dreamlike world of sublime, heady writing akin to Scriabin in certain passages. For reasons already mentioned, I will be revisiting this symphony in the coming days, as it has certainly piqued my interest in Enescu.

Day 215

3 August 2017: Prokofiev – Symphony No. 4 (1929/1947)
Well, this is a bit of an oddity. When Sergei Prokofiev decided to revise his fourth symphony 18 years after he'd originally composed it, he did it so thoroughly that he effectively considered it a different work, worthy of its own new opus number. Hence Prokofiev's catalogue contains a Symphony No. 4, Op. 47 and a Symphony No. 4, Op. 112. It was originally composed immediately after the third, and in the same year as its predecessor's premiere. And as he had with his third symphony, he used material from another work as the basis of its thematic material. For the third, he drew from his opera The Fiery Angel (see Day 160), and this time it was his ballet The Prodigal Son that was raided. The work was poorly received and probably would have slipped away into relative obscurity, maybe receiving some kind of later re-appraisal by a more discerning audience a few decades later.

In an unexpected move, however, Prokofiev decided to thoroughly revise the work in 1947. The timing was odd. Prokofiev had, by this point returned to live in the Soviet Union but was, in common with other Eastern bloc composers, working under an even more severe Socialist Realism doctrine than ever before. Nevertheless, buoyed by the success of his fifth symphony a couple of years earlier, Prokofiev took the red pen to the earlier work, and in the process, virtually doubled it in length. It is this later version that I've opted to listen to today. The first change Prokofiev made was to include a forceful introduction before presenting the hesitant opening theme of the original work. So right from the off, the feeling is of this being new work. The Andante tranquilo showcases Prokofiev's unequalled gift for melody, while the third movement was worked almost unaltered from dance music for the 'Beautiful Maiden' in The Prodigal Son. The revised symphony was more enthusiastically received, rather vindicating Prokofiev's decision.

Day 216

4 August 2017: Dvorák – Symphony No. 6 (1880)
In common with its five predecessors, Antonin Dvorák's sixth symphony is rather overshadowed by the hugely popular trilogy with which he concluded his symphonic output. It was actually the first to be published in his lifetime, and for a time it was even considered to be his 'first' symphony before knowledge of his earlier efforts came to light.

The work represented a further move towards the more nationalistic style for which he would become famous, and as such is something of a transitional piece. It is a pleasing synthesis of the Czech folksongs that were increasingly permeating his work, and the Germanic symphonic style that had formed the core of his earlier compositions. Many have observed parallels between this work and the second symphony of his good friend Brahms, especially in their respective first movements, and this does share a pastoral feel with his Viennese counterpart. All of Dvorák's slow movements tend to pale in comparison to the famous Largo from his ninth 'New World' symphony. The Adagio from this work, however, gives it a run for its money at least. The work as a whole is pleasant and not something you could take a dislike to, but there are clearly greater things to come from this particular composer.

Day 217

5 August 2017: Atterberg – Symphony No. 6., 'Dollarsymfonin' (1928)
I mentioned when I featured Kurt Atterberg's third symphony (see Day 100) that its title of 'West Coast Pictures' had led me to the mistaken belief that he was actually an American composer. It was probably a belief reinforced by this work's title of 'Dollarsymfonin' or 'Dollar Symphony'. In fact, the nickname derives from the fact that it won the highly prestigious International Columbia Graphophone Competition of 1928. The $10,000 prize was worth the equivalent of about $150,000 in today's money so it was certainly not to be sniffed at. The initial premise of the competition was for works that completed, or were at least inspired by, Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony No. 8. In the end the rules were amended so that any new symphony qualified, and some of the works that are known to have been submitted were Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony (part 1 only, see Day 50), Czesław Marek's Sinfonia, Franz Schmidt's Symphony No. 3 and Hans Gál's Symphony No. 1 (both of which I will be featuring next month).

Not only was there an impressive list of entrants, the roll of stellar judges was jaw-dropping. Composers Ravel, Respighi, Szymanowski, Glazunov, and Nielsen were all involved at various stages, assisted by an army of music dignitaries including Thomas Beecham and Donald Tovey. The deliberations were long and rancorous, with Atterberg's victory coming courtesy of chairman of the judges Glazunov's casting vote. It was a hotly disputed and contentious result, with the largely unheard of Atterberg considered an unworthy winner, especially as the symphony's main selling point was believed to be the fact that it steered clear of modernism! As a result, contemporary reviews of the work were scathing. The fact that it entered the world to such a barrage of criticism seems to have damaged the work's reputation irreparably, as neither it nor its composer are especially well-known. Despite the criticism, some of which, I accept, has a modicum of justification, I think it's a really nice piece. The Adagio is stunningly beautiful, and I particularly enjoy the section where, after building to an impassioned peak at around its mid-point, the music subsides into a calm, still section featuring some lovely woodwind solos. The Vivace last movement bounces along nicely, and as a whole it's all rather harmless fun. The controversy it engendered seems inversely related to the uncontroversial nature of the music.

Day 218

6 August 2017: Mahler – Symphony No. 7 (1906)
I find myself listening to most of Gustav Mahler's symphonies on a Sunday as it's just about the only day of the week I can guarantee having the 70 minutes or more I'll need to devote to it. Mahler didn't really do 'small scale' and recordings of this particular work vary in length between 70 and 100 minutes, depending on the self-indulgence of the conductor. It is, as you'd expect, written for a massive orchestra, including unconventional (for the time) orchestral instruments such as guitar, mandolin, tenorhorn, and rute. The symphony is sometimes called 'Song of the Night' as a result of its two Nachtmusik movements. The opening of the first of these is one of Mahler's better known themes as result of its use in the UK for many years in adverts for Castrol GTX oil!

I have to concede that this is not my favourite Mahler symphony. It is Mahler, so by default it's better than vast majority of symphonies out there, in my view. However, I find it errs on the side of turgid at times, and I struggle with it as a rule. The path of dark, funereal opening leading to all-stops-out blazing finale feels like a well-trodden path by now. That said, the scenery passed along the way is certainly interesting at times. Sandwiched between the two Nachtmusik movements is probably Mahler's best Scherzo; a twisted waltz that has a deeply unsettling feel, with echoes of the burlesque finale from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. After the nocturnal music that has gone before, the finale feels like it belongs to a different symphony altogether and, to me, it is an unsatisfactory ending. No less a critic than Michael Kennedy considered this to be Mahler’s most glamorous symphony, and Mahler himself considered it 'light-hearted', which makes me wonder if the performances I've heard of it have all just completely missed the point. Maybe one day the enigma of this symphony will all make sense to me.

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